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Just who is Britain’s Greatest Living Artist?

22 October 2015

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories. Follow @Rakewelltweets.

To Tate Britain, where the museum’s new Frank Auerbach exhibition has pulled in gushing reviews across the board. So gushing, in fact, that it seems a new acronym is required to describe the brilliance of Mornington Crescent’s finest.

‘There’s a rank in art that is never officially assigned, but emerges slowly, over time’, wrote veteran Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak in his column last weekend: ‘during my watch as a critic, only four have risen to it: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and, now, Frank Auerbach. It’s the rank of Britain’s Greatest Living Artist’.

Or, as Waldemar goes on to contract it, ‘BGLA’.

‘No one pins a badge on you to say that is what you have become. It’s just something that gets agreed on. Critics suggest it first… David Hockney, for instance… will never become BGLA because his art sweats the small stuff, not the big stuff’

Hold it Waldemar – is it really ‘agreed on’? The Rake decided to take a look at what the other critics have been saying, and discovered the reality is rather more complex:

…I’m sitting on a Mersey Ferry with Peter Blake, arguably Britain’s greatest living artistWilliam Cook, BBC, 08/04/15

I just want to take a moment to salute Britain’s greatest living artist… Rachel Whiteread – Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 14/12/12

David Hockney, who at 77 remains Britain’s greatest living artist, has complained that too many gay men have become ‘boring’ and ‘conservative’. – Robert Mendick, Daily Telegraph, 09/05/15

Grayson might just be our greatest artist – John Bird, The Big Issue, 01/06/15

I’ve been thinking about Blackburn beer garden gak w*nker a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion: he is a self-expressionist of the highest order, Britain’s greatest living artist. – Joel Golby, Vice, 24/09/15

But BGLA has a sub-category, too:

Who is Britain’s greatest living painter? David Hockney, perhaps? Frank Auerbach? No, it’s Bridget Riley – Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (again), 21/08/13

At his best, Frank Auerbach is without doubt Britain’s greatest living painter. – Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times, 08/10/15

Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the garrulous populist David Hockney, with whom he arguably now vies for the unofficial title of Britain’s greatest living painter, Auerbach refuses to court celebrity – Alastair Sooke, Daily Telegraph, 07/10/15

Rakewell scolds any readers dismissing the hallowed acronym as meaningless hyperbole, but he must stop before this turns ugly – as it might well do anyway. All of these nominee BGLAs are still living, all of them (with the possible exception of the ‘Blackburn beer garden w*nker’) still working. Which can mean only one thing: the gloves are off.

Got a story for Rakewell? Email rakewell@apollomag.com.